Tenacious, talented, and inspired by the austerity of the abbey orphanage in which she was raised, Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion with simple designs like the little black dress. Stern’s Gino Cattani examines her unlikely entrepreneurial journey from orphan to fashion icon
Born into poverty and sent by her father to the Aubazine Abbey orphanage at age 12, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) could hardly have come from more humble beginnings. Yet over the course of her lifetime, her name became—and still is—synonymous with elegance, luxury, and style. Chanel founded the eponymous fashion house in Paris in 1910 and by her 40s, her business was already grossing about $70 million in today’s dollars.
How a French girl on the fringes at the turn of the 20th century came to dominate the fashion world is the focus of a study coauthored by Stern School of Business professor Gino Cattani. “From the Margins of Haute Couture: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Coco Chanel,” published in the journal Enterprise & Society, examines the tension between society’s periphery and core and the mechanisms that enabled Chanel’s remarkable trajectory from social outcast to possibly the most recognizable name in fashion.
Although external events such as the first World War created fertile ground for acceptance of Chanel’s radical ideas, her resolve, ingenuity, and charm were critical to her rise. “You can always argue that that could be a lucky break, but your ability to take advantage of that opportunity is a matter of agency,” says Cattani. “You have to be able to see the opportunity and go after it.” Below, he shares takeaways from Chanel’s couture career of daring designs.
Reframe the Disadvantages
“It’s a well-known fact that some of the most important ideas originate from people who are at the fringe of the field or even outright outsiders,” says Cattani. They have “an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, [to] see things that others don’t see.” Chanel’s most iconic designs—such as her “little black dress,” which Vogue called “the frock that all the world will wear” in 1926—were inspired by the austere black-and-white habits of the abbey’s nuns and the girls’ simple uniforms. “The minimalist approach that characterized most of her creations, the idea that something [can] be elegant and casual and doesn’t have to decorate a woman goes back to those early years,” Cattani says.
Find the Entry Points
As women took on the roles of men sent to war, their sartorial choices evolved as well. “World War I was critical in accelerating some of the societal level changes that created a more receptive environment toward Chanel’s notion of fashion,” says Cattani. “There was this sense [they] could emancipate themselves, and fashion embraced this desire to not feel constrained [by] their clothing.” Couture in Paris was still dominated by traditional designers, many of whom were male, but Chanel had a different vantage.
“The fact that Chanel started in Biarritz where many Parisians had relocated during the war helped because it was a more casual, summer place where people were already embracing a different lifestyle,” Cattani explains. He also points out that in periods of upheaval, who is behind a novel idea—whether it’s a legitimate actor or someone on the margins—is less relevant “because the changes reduce the authority and influence of the establishment.”
Leverage the Advantages
Chanel was clearly “one of the most intelligent people of the 20th century, able to charm some of the brightest people of their time,” says Cattani. Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso were among the revolutionary artists with whom she socialized, collaborated, and was sometimes romantically linked. They shared with Chanel “a very similar notion of what art is all about, to essentially challenge the established cultural canons in their own fields.”
Change the Language
“If you don’t speak the language of your reference audience, it’s difficult to be heard,” says Cattani. “I’m not talking about the verbal language, [but] understanding what it takes for you to engage an audience with what you’re doing. Chanel understood the importance of how a language, in a deeper sense, was crucial to getting accepted into certain circles.”
She skillfully sought out like-minded people who shared her values and vision, and who would support her work. “What is really unique in her case is this ability to understand the importance of these ties…and orchestrate these connections to her own advantage,” he says. Chanel frequently worked with Picasso, designed costumes for Cocteau’s production of Antigone and Serge Diaghilev’s ballet Le Train Bleu, and outfitted Hollywood actresses for Samuel Goldwyn.
The mindset and circumstances required for someone on the periphery to find success in their field is not limited to Chanel, but she—and similar historical case studies—had the ability to endure hardships others cannot endure. “There is this incredible passion for what they are doing, but also this ability to accept negative feedback,” says Cattani. “It actually becomes motivating, an incentive basically to get even better…they try to see what they can learn from that.”
Understand the Audience
“Chanel was clearly a good listener, in the deeper sense of the term, meaning willing to absorb others’ ideas, suggestions, perspectives, whether or not she agreed with them,” says Cattani. “[She was] obviously a very careful observer of the styles or the lifestyle of many women of their time, understanding their need and then trying to address those needs with her own unique take on what fashion should have been.”